For many years at the newspaper, I had a secret weapon. Cathy Westleigh, the lady’s name was, and she was the newspaper’s switchboard operator. 

That was her job on paper, anyway. In reality, she was my own personal news assistant, my life coach and social engagement manager. 

I have Cathy to thank for the fact that I am married; that I ride a dual sport motorcycle; that I no longer waste my moolah on vile cigarettes. And that’s not to mention the contributions she made to the craft of news gathering.

When I was named Maine Journalist of the Year in 2006, by rights I should have walked up to the podium and thanked Cathy specifically in my acceptance speech. I should have cracked that award plaque over my knee and given her the biggest half. 

Oh, what a decade that was. Since most newsroom work was still being conducted via the telephone, having a good switchboard operator on your side could mean the difference between journalistic doldrums and journalistic success. 

“I’ve had a couple calls about strange lights and noises in the skies over Greene,” Cathy would say, wandering over to my desk with her notes. “Are you interested?” 

Advertisement

An hour later, I’d be working on one of the biggest stories of the year and all because Cathy was wise enough to recognize bona fide news and to get the seeds of it into the right hands. 

On another night, she’d come to my side of the newsroom to warn me that a known troublemaker was trying to get through. 

“It’s that guy with the poodle act,” she’d say. “This time he’s insisting that his shih tzu is possessed by the spirit of an ancient queen. Shall I send him to voicemail?” 

When I was struggling to find sources of information on this topic or that, I’d make a point of passing by the switchboard on my way in. 

“I’ve gotta write something about that Dick Cheney thing,” I’d say. “Do you know anybody who hunts quail?” 

Cathy would make some calls and by the time I finished making a cup of coffee, I’d have the names and numbers of a bunch of quail hunters she knew personally. Her social circle was rather wide, you must understand. She could connect me to a group of bikers with one phone call, but she could also hook me up easily enough to the fine ladies of the Women’s Literary Union. 

Advertisement

Builders, bakers, candlestick makers? She knew them all. In the age before the World Wide Web really took off, Cathy was like Google, sitting over at the switchboard and knitting between calls. And if that wasn’t enough, she’d also bring me food from home because she could see that as a bachelor, I wasn’t eating enough. 

At the time, I was spending a lot of hours prowling around downtown in search of news. 

“Everybody down there has a dog,” I complained. “If I had a dog to walk, I’d fit right in.” 

A few nights later, Cathy brought in her sweet pit bull, Paco, and off I went into the downtown to walk him, chest all puffed out with pride. Cathy was like a genie, forever calling forth whatever it was I wished for that day. 

I had no idea how useful that talent was going to become. 

Somewhere around 2002, Cathy caught on to the fact that I was smitten with the newsroom clerk. She caught on because every five minutes, I’d be over at her desk dropping subtle hints. 

Advertisement

“Lord, but I like that Corey,” I’d babble for the third time that day. “I’ve got a big ol’ crush, you know. A years-long crush. What do you say? Do I have a shot?” 

Quietly, efficiently, Cathy would manage it. 

“You know,” she said. “Corey will be coming down around 5 o’clock and with all the snow we got, she could probably use some help clearing off her car.” 

So when 5 o’clock rolled around, what do you know? I’d managed to situate myself by the stairs just as Corey was leaving for the day. 

“Fancy meeting you here,” I said all innocent like. “Can I walk you to your car? Lot of snow out there and look! I just happen to have my own snow brush!” 

Each night, Cathy would let me know when Corey was coming down, and off I’d go for another perfectly by-chance meeting at the bottom of the stairs. After months of this, I decided that I should probably just go ahead and marry the lady. 

Advertisement

Cathy managed that, as well. 

“You know,” she said. “If you want to propose to her in a pumpkin patch, I’ve got one right across the street from my house.” 

A week later, I was in that pumpkin patch, down on one knee and forking over the ring I had stashed in a particularly plump pumpkin in which I’d carved “Will you marry me?” Only, my carving capabilities are pretty limited so what I’d carved looked more like “Will you matty met.” 

Cathy said it was good enough and she was right. Bam! Like that, I was married. Some months later, Corey and I had a reception sort of thing at — where else? — the Westleigh place out in the country. 

Cathy had almost single-handedly brought an end to what had looked like terminal bachelorhood. What more could she do for me? 

Somewhere around 2008, I was hanging around Cathy’s desk once again, this time grousing that I needed to give up smoking because it was getting too damn expensive. 

Advertisement

“You know,” Cathy said, in that reserved way she had, “if you were to give up cigarettes, you could afford to buy yourself a motorcycle.” 

In that moment, stars aligned. Pieces of an ancient puzzle suddenly clanked into place. Off in the distance, possibly along Pine Street, angels sang of this glory. 

A motorcycle! Of course! That’s exactly what I needed to add some oomph to my life. 

“I wonder what kind of motorcycle I should get?” I wondered aloud. 

“You know,” said Cathy. “If you got one of those dual sport types, you could ride on the road AND on the trails.” 

That moment was pure revelation. A few weeks later, I was at a shop in Augusta picking up my new Suzuki DR650, which I still have to this day and which — let’s be honest here — I’d marry in a heartbeat if there weren’t stupid laws that prohibit such things. 

Advertisement

The first time I loaded that motorcycle onto a pickup truck, it was at Cathy’s place and with the help of her husband, Paul, who knew a little something about everything on earth. When I needed to swap out the tires, it was Cathy’s son, Jon, who showed me how it was done. Her daughter, Rebecca, has been an ongoing source for many things, as well. 

I was blessed the day I met Cathy Westleigh and her kin, no doubt about it. And when Cathy left the switchboard job after nearly 10 years, I went into a period of mourning; a period during which I had to look up phone numbers all on my own and during which nobody screened my calls for me. 

It was hell. 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the people who have impacted my weird career in one way or another. The list is long and Cathy’s name is very high upon it. I sometimes wonder what tack my life would be on today if our paths had not crossed. Why, I might still be a skinny, chain-smoking single guy who goes everywhere on four wheels instead of two. 

I cringe just thinking about it.

When he’s not happily riding around on two wheels, and sometimes while he is, Mark LaFlamme covers the crime beat for the Sun Journal. 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.